Nuclear war is unwinnable and must never be fought

On 3 January, the leaders of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA, the P5) jointly stated that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. So say we all, I hope. But what does it mean for the P5 to say this, and to say it now?

The P5’s statement echoed the declaration by President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at their Geneva summit meeting in 1985, which was followed by historic talks on nuclear disarmament.

The new statement is unlikely to have such an impact. The Gorbachev-Reagan statement came when they had just launched nuclear negotiations and kicked off a process that led to steep reductions in the superpowers’ nuclear arsenals. The P5 statement comes amid nuclear modernisation and upgrade programmes all round.

But put scepticism about the P5 on hold. Instead, take the new statement at face value and look at its logical implications. That is where the argument today should focus.

I follow that through and link it to the prospects for the Review Conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has just been rescheduled for August this year, in the latest film in SIPRI’s Peace Points series.

In brief, three key issues:

  1. There is a clear contradiction between forswearing nuclear war and reserving the right to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. Yet only one of the P5 countries, China, has a ‘no-first-use’ (NFU) policy. 
  2. The futility and danger of arms racing also becomes clear, as the P5 statement recognises in wanting to avoid ‘an arms race that would benefit none and endanger all.’ So the nuclear modernization and upgrade programmes of all five (and likewise of the other four states that own nuclear weapons – Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea) all come into question.
  3. And more broadly in their relations with each other, the P5 should live up to their responsibility to avoid war among themselves. Hostile actions and rising tensions over Taiwan and Ukraine raise concerns the role of nuclear weapons were those conflicts to escalate. Avoiding nuclear war means avoiding behaviour that might lead to it.

At the close of the joint statement, the five states write that they are ‘resolved to pursue constructive dialogue’. This would be very welcome and is urgently needed in 2022. 

* * * * * * *

Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapon States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races (3 January 2022) –

NB: These arguments are explored in more depth in a longer essay, The logic of avoiding nuclear war, co-written with my SIPRI colleagues Tytti Erastö and Sibylle Bauer.

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